Tuesday, December 31, 2013

2013 NonModen in Review

In a more laid-back year of blogging, NonModern had only 223 entries for 2013. That is an average of just over 4 a week. Around 80 posts concerned film, 29 television, and 42 missional issues. I finished commenting my way through the Pauline Epistles, and started working on the Gospel of Mark. Here are 30 or so of the most read posts of 2013:

Film 

“Rise of the Guardians” (2012) 

“Wreck It Ralph” and the Problem of Evil 

Dogmas, Beliefs, Ideas (4 Parts)

Faith in “Salmon Fishing in the Yemen” 

“The Day the Earth Stood Still” (1951) 

A Biblical Reading of “Warm Bodies” (2013) 

Poetry 

I wrote just ten poems this year. Billy Collins has said that everyone has 200 bad poems in them, so I am getting ever closer to my complete volume of terrible works. Then I’ll likely have to quit because no one ever said that there were good poems to follow the bad…

Haughty Exercise 

Plunk 

Naïf’s Lament 

A Little Whisper in Your Heart 

Topic: Gothic 3 

Con-silly-piracy 

Smartphone 

When the Frost is in the City 

A Voyeuristic Killer 

Christmas Eve in Dresden 

Television, Literature, Music, etc. 

Star Trek Deep Space Nine (Season 4a) 

I slowed down quite a bit this year, but the continuation of my examination of the Trek universe generated the most hits this year. DS9 posts have thousands of hits, and this one from early in the year has the most of any of them.

Looking back, it seems I merely read two books this year:

A (very) Brief Look at “The Cuckoo’s Calling” 

“The Prague Cemetery” by Umberto Eco 

“Stardust” and Post-Christian Spirituality 

"Applaus Applaus" by Sportfreunde Stiller

Sci-Fi Television Lists 

Manipulative Memes 

Ministry and Missional Thoughts 

Ministry Implications for Social Networking and Social Networking Implications for Ministry

I was asked to give a talk about this topic this year, and the posts keep generating hits every day.

With apologies to all the Pharisees I have known and loved… 

One of those news stories at the end of the year, or more precisely the reaction to the story, generated a spontaneous reaction out of me. It quickly shot up to the fourth most viewed post of the year in just two days.

Missional Myths Series (3 Parts)

Mark Introduction and Outline 

The Semantics of Mercy and Grace (3 Parts)

The Complete Implications of Optical Illusions 

Syncretism in American Christianity 

The Parable of the Zoo-Keeper

Monday, December 30, 2013

Thoughts on "The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug" (2013)

Or More Like a Multitude of Little Reflections

Sometimes, a source material is so good that you can’t go wrong if you make an adaptation that is in any way recognizable. That is my argument for why “The Desolation of Smaug” is likely to end up on my top ten list for 2013. In spite of my conviction that Jackson still struggles with pacing and length, I really did enjoy the second Hobbit a lot.

Pacing Issues (The Fanboy Rant)

And just to expound a bit on that length issue—which isn’t my main point in this post—the pacing in this film is off. Take a look at the first couple sequences as an example of how things should be done. The Beorn sequence and the Mirkwood sequence are two perfect examples of staying faithful to the spirit of the book while trimming things down a lot. Just read those chapters and imagine how they would have been directly translated to the screen. As written word they are great. But they would have bored movie audiences to tears. Later in the film we get the brilliant conversation between Smaug and Bilbo—as per the text. However, when the audience is ready to move onto the next plot point, we get a thirty minute, mind-numbing, butt numbing, superfluous action sequence.

Grace and Luck (The Theology in The Hobbit)

One of the things I most enjoyed about this entry is something that might have bugged a lot of fans. I loved the insane action of the barrel escape. I know it deviates quite a bit from the book, and I would have been fine with a more faithful adaptation. However, I think what Jackson achieves here (and it is also seen in the goblin chase in the first film) is something completely in keeping with the spirit of Tolkien’s world-view.

I like to call it “the grace of the sovereign hand in history.”

In the first film people might have scoffed at the sheer luck of the company as they barreled through the goblin tunnels surviving through unimaginable luck. It almost feels like a story-telling cheat. I contend what we witness is a guiding hand of Good assisting the company in their quest against Evil. The quest sure seems like a small, self-serving adventure but those who know the whole story (or whom have seen the opening to the second film) know that it is a small part of a greater, universally impactful, quest.

Here in the second film things are even more apparent due to the presence of the elves. In Tolkien’s world, elves are beings imbued with grace. That does not merely mean that they are graceful, they are literally heavenly creatures. They are beings as the Creator intended beings to be. So, the way elves are able to move and fight in the barrel chase is not surprising. In contrast, the dwarves and Bilbo are once again experiencing unbelievable luck escaping from the Goblins. Unbelievable, that is, until we recognize the parallel between the “luck” of the dwarves and the grace of the elves. This is not a case of our protagonists being too lucky. It is the grace of a sovereign hand guiding them and helping their story forward.

My Favorite Moment (The embarrassing moment where I drool on myself.)

Ultimately, though, when I think of this film what sticks in my mind and what I most look forward to revisiting is not even a part of The Hobbit proper. I love seeing the unwritten journey of Gandalf. Particularly his lone stand in Dol Guldur. This event speaks to my affinity for the lone individual facing overwhelming odds and fears to do the right thing and, in spite of their own inabilities and weaknesses, making an impact for good. Plus, Gandalf has long been one of if not my favorite characters in literature. The iconic image of the aged wizard in the seemingly abandoned ruin may be one of the most aesthetically pleasing compositions in film. Ever.


Sunday, December 29, 2013

Just When You Need a Break (Mark 6:30-44)

I heard a sermon today from Nehemiah chapter six. It had four points, inspired by Nehemiah’s determination to complete his God-given task in the face of tremendous opposition: God provides the power. God provides the courage. God provides the discernment. And God sees His plans completed. This is the sort of message we say we believe as followers of Jesus. The question we need to ask is, how good are we at living what we believe.

Jesus is a good example for us in this regard. Even though He is God, in the incarnation He became fully man too. His ministry on earth was not the work of a superhuman. He was tapped into God’s power in a way that we all should be capable. In this passage in Mark we see how Jesus responded to the Call when He was at the end of His capabilities.

Another Gospel tells us here that Jesus had just heard of John’s fate as the disciples were returning from their mission. That news alone would be enough to put most of us out of commission for a while. Mark lets us know that they all needed a good break anyway. They couldn’t even get a moment’s peace to eat a bite! However, when they tried to get away, the crowds followed.

Today, we would pull Jesus aside and give Him a good talking to about the dangers of burn-out. How He was only going to make Himself sick or open Himself up to temptation. Jesus instead tapped into a power that was beyond humanity, beyond burn-out, beyond the mundane.

He shepherded the crowds and when they couldn’t take any more in, when the crowds were at the end of their capacity, He looked to provide for those needs as well. The image of Jesus feeding the masses with a tiny portion of food is the perfect image for what God wants to accomplish though His people. He wants to work powerfully through our weakness—through our inability—in His all-sufficient power.

This story triggers a lot of questions. What calling are we following? Is it big enough to be from God? Is it beyond our capabilities, or merely a little thing we dare to offer in our own power? Are we about God’s tasks, or merely deluding ourselves into thinking our plans are God-sized?

Saturday, December 28, 2013

Top 25 Anticipated Films of 2014

This is a challenging task I attempt every year around this time. I inevitably miss some of the best films a year will eventually offer, and pick some stinkers out of an eternal optimism that doesn’t always pay off. It is a mixture of what looks entertaining and what will tickle my own particular taste, but ultimately a search for stories that will have something meaningful to say. Here are 25 for 2014:

25. Divergent 

The first five films on this list have a huge potential to be the top-five stinkers of 2014. If this is more “Twilight Zone” intelligent storytelling and less “Twilight” teeny-bopper mental-vacancy, it could be passable.

24. [Rec]4 Apocalypse 

The Spanish, zombie-epidemic-via-demonic-possession franchise is back. It has struggled to equal the quality level achieved in the first film, all the while peeling back more and more layers of the supernatural cause along the way. The hope is that things will start to mean something eventually, but that hope is fading fast.

23. Sabotage 

Arnold has failed to get me back into theaters since he quit politics, but maybe this loose adaptation (very loose) of Agatha Christie will do the trick. (I don’t have high hopes here.)

22. Dracula Untold 

I am a sucker for Dracula stories, only because the novel is so rich in meaning and symbolism. All the adaptations tend to let me down, but I keep coming back hoping for something fresh that is a fraction as good as the original.

21. Edge of Tomorrow 

Time travel stories are rich in potential, but also have the worst track-record for success in my book.

20. Jupiter Ascending 

An intriguing concept. Can the makers of “The Matrix” ever replicate the success of that first film?

19. Godzilla 

This is the kid in me contributing to the list.

18. The Wind Rises 

With no Pixar on tap for 2014, this is my second highest animation anticipation.

17. Labor Day 

This looks like a soap opera level of melodrama and romance, but Reitman deserves a chance.

16. Transcendence 

If this film is as rich in philosophical speculation as it looks, without being too preachy and on the nose, it could be an important film for our technological world.

15. The Monuments Men 

Ocean's crew meets World War II?

14. Captain America: Winter Soldier 

The first CA was one of the better films in Marvel’s first cycle.

13. X-Men: Days of Future Past 

This story looks like it could rescue the failing X Men franchise. Then again, there is time travel involved.

12. Jack Ryan 

This should be good. After all, it was on my list last year. The delay to this year worries me.

11. Guardians of the Galaxy 

My highest anticipated Superhero film of the year, because it is so un-superhero-like. It could, therefore, bomb terribly.

10. Winter’s Tale 

The trailer sucked me in. Hopefully the movie itself won’t just suck.

9. Son of God 

Is this going to be a great presentation of the greatest story ever told, or a poor quality effort like so many other “Christian” efforts posing as art?

8. Mr. Peabody and Sherman 

I had this one on last year’s list. My hope is the delay was technical and not quality related.

7. How to Catch a Monster 

From what I hear this looks like an original fantasy. That and it stars Matt Smith.

6. Gone Girl 

I always anticipate Fincher’s films.

5. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes 

The original franchise was one of the better “thinking man’s” science fiction series of films. (Full transparency, though, I have yet to see the precursor to this version.)

4. Interstellar 

Nolan is another director I always give the benefit of the doubt.

3. Noah 

I don’t imagine this will be a Christian version of this tale. That being said, I am always interested in a Biblical Epic and the conversation it will generate.

2. Muppets Most Wanted 

This could have been number one, right?

1. Hobbit: There and Back Again 

But I will again give that slot to the latest 3 part story taking place in Middle Earth. It will likely be too long and annoying in parts, but the source material is just too good.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Consuming Stories on Our Own Terms

A life-lesson reminder from a trailer.

A few months ago I caught the trailer for “The Blacklist.” I remember being intrigued. It looked like an interesting, entertaining idea for a show. I also vaguely remember thinking that I knew everything I needed to know about the premise from that short little four minute commercial. I must have forgotten that in the intervening months however, because when iTunes offered the Pilot episode for free I downloaded it and watched it.

That is 46 minutes wasted that I’ll never get back.

It is not that it was bad. In fact it was indeed the entertaining show I imagined it to be. The problem is that I had already seen everything I needed to see in the 4 minute version. My advice to others would be to watch the trailer instead of the Pilot, and then get on to the rest of the show. Pilots are all about setting up a premise, and this one doesn’t add anything that the trailer left out.

Then again, I am all about consuming stories as economically as possible… time-wise that is. I left commercial television behind years ago. I can’t remember the last time I saw a commercial away from YouTube. Why spend an hour watching a 40-42 minute story? Watch three episodes of your favorite show THAT way and you have spent one hour of your life letting sales-people pitch you products you likely don’t need.

And—as far as older shows and movies go—technology these days is there to save you even more time. Those older shows and films ran at a much slower pace. People spoke slower and they felt a need to have long pauses in between lines. These days, I watch a lot of those shows at 1.6 to 2 times speed. I can consume a classic episode in 20 minutes, a film in 45. When I watch Star Trek episodes at normal speed these days, it feels like they are caught in some sort of “time-slowing-down” zone—the most boring sci-fi plot-line imaginable.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Christmas Eve in Dresden

The effect of my cause is Mist*
A sad revenant excuse
My kingdom with toil I have built
And it is a realm of refuse

But I have been offered a gift
Escape from these wages of sin
Ease to my sufferings and guilt
And it cuts through this painful din

Infant cry in the dark of night
Heaven’s weight in a young girl’s arms
Fragile form; hope of creation
It is the beauty of Christmas

For those who hear, an end to fright
A story inscribed on the stars
Herald proclaiming salvation
Poetry composed at Christmas

Every moment sees many babies born. and nearly as many people dying
The latter is sadly common and costly; the former magical mundanity
Yet when the Creator was born, in the form of the most delicate humanity
Witnessing angels must have held their breath, and marveled at the Sovereign’s audacity

In the unfathomable vastness of time and space
The crossroads of history and the universe may be found
In a battle fought on a hill near Jerusalem,
But all of creation hinges upon
That fragile moment in a stable in the town of Bethlehem.

[*] In addition to the English word meaning something that dims and obscures, Mist is German for manure, a mixture of animal feces and bedding straw used to fertilize.  To "build a Mist" is to create a problem or disaster.

Monday, December 23, 2013

The Tragedy of Curiosity (Mark 6:14-30)

This passage is the third of Mark’s “sandwiched” stories. It comes in the middle of Jesus sending the twelve out on a mission, and ends as they are returning. When Mark structures his stories this way, I always look for the teaching or element in the inner account that relates to the framing one. That may not be the intent of Mark’s composition—in this case it feels like John’s death is mostly related to the disciple’s mission by the reactions of the masses—but I still look to see if there is something deeper to be found.

And here is what jumps out at me. The mission of the Disciples was an evangelistic one. They were heralding the coming Kingdom and calling people to repentance. Today we would say they were calling people to faith, but in doing that we would be missing a vital point, and Herod illustrates that for us.

You see, Herod had belief. He was very interested in spiritual things. Mark tells us that clearly in verse 20:

“For Herod was afraid of John, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and kept him safe. And when he heard him, he was very perplexed; but he used to enjoy listening to him.”

Herod had John arrested because John was calling him out for the sin of marrying his own sister-in-law. She wanted John killed for such talk, but Herod knew John was right. He was also fascinated by John’s teaching. He was very interested in spiritual things. Herod was curious and he had a level of belief, but he had no interest in changing his ways.

Today we have a lot of believers who are trying to do an incomplete evangelism, and we wonder why we are not seeing results. In a majority of cases the problem is unrelated to the story here. We have people spewing a pre-packaged, bullet point, advertising jingle version of a gospel that simply does not communicate at a level people can understand. However, there are also two other failings on the mission Jesus has charged us to be on.

On the one hand a lot of Christians use a “scorched earth” approach to the good news. They call out loudly and indiscriminately for repentance. Announce to the world at large that they are no good sinners and need to repent. There is no attempt to find people who are interested and seeking, to reach these people with the story of God’s love, to achieve repentance through faith. The result is not reconciliation, but a strengthening of the battle lines between mankind and God.

The other approach is a naïve one, where we find people who are indeed curious about God and spiritual matters. But when we find them we are content to simply tickle their ears and are happy that someone likes us. We forget completely that salvation is not just “believe” but rather, “repent and trust.”

Half of the Christians I know today would be calling Herod “close to God” and rejoicing about all the good talks they were having with him. The other half would be celebrating the fact they were in jail for sticking it to him about his sin. Either way, in concentrating on a house that should have had them “shaking off the dust from the soles of their feet” and looking for more houses to engage, they are not able to give Jesus much of a report from their mission.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Response to Yesterday's Post:

There has been some good follow-up to this post over on facebook.  A lot of it spurred these initial spur-of-the-moment-thoughts of mine on to more spontaneous clarifications.  Hopefully these snippets of conversations help to clarify my idea.  I am not trying to be harsh against Mr. Robertson, nor am I building an argument in favor of homosexuality.  I am simply making a case for doing the task Jesus charged us with in a way I think He would want it to be done.  I think most people would have zero problems with this whole discussion if it were about any other sin.  Even in some of the comments below we see that, for some reason, homosexuality short circuits people like no other sin.  Others' comments are in quote form, my responses are blocked normally:

well the guy did ask him what sin was.....what kind of answer would he expect? I think he expected the answer he got, that he was provoking it in fact so that he could jump all over the guy. Just my thoughts.... -C 

What is sin? That terrible condition with which I struggle every day, that threatens to ruin relationships and lives all over the world, for which God was willing to sacrifice His only Son so that we could have the opportunity to be forgiven and see what life is potentially like as it was intended to be lived. If you press me for examples I would have to list: pride in all of its forms, judgmental attitudes, hatred, selfishness and greed, unfaithfulness, and generally any attitude or conceit that says I know what is best. As a follower of Jesus, I am aware that I am just as bad as anyone if not worse than many, and I am eternally grateful for the love and forgiveness I have received. I wish everyone could know that love the way I have experienced it. How's that for an answer?

it's a great answer. Sin is "falling short" (Romas 3:23) so we know we ALL fit in that category...sinners. But that doesn't make his answer wrong, just harsh sounding. Just saying I think that is what the interviewer was asking for...and of course if we don't know what things harm our relationship with God, whether it's pride, gossiping or whatever, how does that help us? It's like not knowing you have a curable illness....unless you know that you are sick you may not seek the cure. It is not wrong to point out things God has told us that have the potential to harm our relationship with Him and others....it's not always pleasant but not wrong. -C 

Right or wrong, from a communication standpoint it was a terrible answer. We need to be wise about our number one task, which is communicating a truth that is very hard for people to understand. Our position has been framed as "hate" by the world, and we are so hung up on being right that we forget there are tons of ways to be right about details and still dead wrong in the overall task. The reason we have been so easy to silence and ostracize is because we don't just see homosexuality as another sin. A majority of Christians are truly homophobic. Ask yourself, why don't we get as up in arms about other sins like gluttony or greed. We aren't scared of those sins. We have found a way to justify them in our own lives.

and we can be so hung up on the "right" way to communicate that we water everything down and communicate nothing. Mostly we just need to communicate on a face to face basis with people because they don't know our heart when they only hear or see our words...even these here on facebook. -C 

Jason, I agree with your thesis that we should show love and not hate. One issue I am conflicted about is whether all sins are equal or not. The books of the law have different punishments for various sins; blood sacrifices for some but death to the offender of other sins, including, but not limited to, homosexual acts. -S 

S, I think all sin is equal in as far as it impacts eternity. Theologically, a mass murderer and a rebellious two-year-old have both sinned themselves out of a relationship with their creator. On the other hand, temporally speaking sins have different levels of impact and therefore are not completely "equal." What you have to ask yourself then is: which sins have the greater impact? Lusting after a woman in one's mind is damaging but not to the level of committing murder for example. The question then becomes, how damaging is sin committed between two adults in private? Is heterosexual sex outside of marriage better than homosexual? How? I think people even treat lesbian sex and male homosexual sex differently. How is that logical? It all goes to a level of disturbance (or the homophobia angle). We judge most harshly that which disturbs us the most. And it all goes back to the fact that we are concerning ourselves with that which is outside of our task. We are to share the story of God's love to everyone we meet; God can handle the judging.

Homosexuality can separate us from God just like any other sin can. However, homosexuality is mentioned in the Bible as an "abomination to the Lord". God's forgiveness extends to homosexuals just like it does to liars and thieves, the difference is that the US and the world want us to accept or tolerate sins... including homosexuality. If a homosexual has no desire to repent, then he or she will die in their sins. It would be unloving to tell a homosexual that, "its ok, we love you anyway and will accept you as you continue in your life of sin", when we know that the truth is they will burn in hell with all the other sinners that do not repent! -D 

Pretty sure, that when Christ BECAME my heterosexual sin on the cross, it was an "abomination to The Lord!" I'm just not sure what causes believers to assume the responsibility for conviction of sin. It is The Holy Spirit's role, and He's much better at it. Our role is to introduce the character of God which leads one, to intimate relationship. The character of God is displayed for us in Hosea. Immeasurable grace and endless love. -M 

Does not your pastor convict you of sin as well? Are not church members to exhort each other to good works? Should we encourage/accept sin that grace may abound? "God forbid". And if you say you can willingly choose to live a lifestyle of sin (and I said: any sin... not just homosexuality) and still be saved, are we not liars and the truth is not in us. The Bible says the contrary. If I know that the bridge is out ahead if you go to the left and I warn those going left that that is the wrong way and plead with them to go to the right where the bridge (Jesus) is in place, am I wrong to do so? By the way, I do agree with you that heterosexual out of marriage sex is equally a problem in the US. And the Bible also says that fornicators will not inherit the kingdom of heaven (obviously I am speaking of the unrepentant). -D 

Disciples do hold each other accountable and spur each other on to be more Christlike. Especially where we have blind spots in our walk. I do find however, that the biggest source of conviction in my life comes from the Spirit as I regularly read the Word. As to outsiders, I find two things to be true: (A) they are highly aware of their own sin that they try to mask and cover. God's message of love and forgiveness is what makes those capable of faith open up to that feeling of guilt that they deny and repent. (B) All of my attempts to accuse people of sin, and make them repent (or for that matter, convince people of other religions that their faith is wrong) have only served to close down conversations and make communication impossible. I help people deal with individual sins once they have made the step to embrace faith. Or, to put it another way, I don't require holiness as a prerequisite for salvation. General repentance to Sin is an adequate first step. It is on their journey with God that they address each and every individual sin in their lives.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

With apologies to all the Pharisees I know and love...

As usual, I am a little confused and need some help here: am I supposed to be FOR the right of any company to run its business the way it sees fit (Hobby Lobby, Chick-fil-A) or should companies be forced to do things the way I or some group of people see fit (A&E)? It seems to me we need to choose one standard or the other.

Added to that, as a follower of Christ, should my message to the world be, "Jesus loves you" and let the Holy Spirit shape hearts that come to faith; or should my message be, "here is everything about you that God hates" and hope that tearing sinners down and forced behavior modification induces trust in God? Do I want the world to look at me and see love, or hate?

Jesus reserved His most fiery speeches for the religious people of His day who thought God had appointed them as the spiritual judges of others; then He hung out with the worst sinners, loved them, and helped them. When Jesus said "repent" His love and friendship for sinners demonstrated that His message was not hate speech.

Are we tasked with sharing the story of God's love to a lost world in need of hope, or judging others and being the standard of decency?

Jesus is our model for the former task. He is the only person who has ever lived who has the moral position to judge any sinner, and yet He chose to offer forgiveness and healing, and then died for the sins of the world.

If we say our task is the later, then we need to join the likes of the Pharisees: sinners telling other sinners what they can and cannot do. Telling people how they can earn God’s love on their own by not sinning. Or at least adopting our own system of classifying sins into the really evil sins like homosexuality, the simply bad sins like heterosexual adultery, and the ones we completely overlook like the idolatry of money and celebrity.

The goal in both cases is the same: a better world free from the slavery to sin. It is just that one approach is the plan God set in motion, spoke about in His word, and will bring to fruition in His Kingdom. The other is just another ideology trying to replace slavery to sin with slavery to a religious system.

(For follow up and clarification to this post, see here)

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

WTF... Say?

There is nothing scarier than a mass of humanity. It is not a coincidence that all those classic horror films end with a mob. Some people try to argue that there is a potential for good in individuals, but when you get a group together at let all that “group-think” start, you are in for some major evil. Even if it usually presents itself as ignorance. (Which is still evil, we just somehow give ignorance more of a pass.)

For examples of this truth, you do not need to go back to 1930s Germany (or, if we are being honest, much of the world in the 1930s, with eugenics, Marxism and fascism running rampant all over). Just take a look at the internet.

People regularly support, prop-up, and further the cause of utter stupidity on the World Wide Web. Even in the act of declaring something stupid, we give that stupidity the only commodity that counts on the web: clicks. (OK, I do see the irony of this whole post now. You don’t need to highlight that fact.)

Just look at two of the biggest internet memes of 2013: the “Harlem Shake” and “The Fox.” These memes are the very definition of stupidity. People readily recognize that fact. In the case of “The Fox” that was the whole driving force behind the song. It is a commentary of the stupidity of what is popular. And yet people can’t download it fast enough. Everybody who watched a “Harlem Shake” video, saw how pointless it was, and proceeded to fall all over themselves trying to top the stupidity.

Not since the early nineties when MTV made a show that made fun of its viewers’ stupidity—and that show went on to become the favorite of those same belittled viewers—has such stupidity been so well illustrated.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Called, Appointed, and Now... Sent (Mark 6:7-13)

Jesus has called and appointed disciples, now He sends them out with a mission. This passage and this moment in Jesus’ ministry is too often quoted and looked to as prescriptive. There are circumstances and cultural norms that much of it impractical as THE way to do missions for all time. That being said, there are some sound principles to apply:

“Two by Two”

The Christian mission is not one for lone wolf types, no matter what you have likely heard. This is ironic because that seems to be exactly what a lot of agencies look for in their missionaries/church planters. However, we need each other. We need mutual support, increased energy and capability, diversity of gifting, and—maybe most importantly—diversity of opinion. In spiritual matters, where we are trying to discover God’s plans and our ways forward in those plans, we need someone to help us distinguish between God’s voice and our own inner voice.

“Authority”

In this passage we see Jesus give His disciples just one thing: authority. We need to keep in mind that we have witnessed several chapters of Jesus giving them a whole lot more including His teaching and the best example of ministry ever, but as He sends them out He invests them with His power. Regardless of how we today think this power is effected in a Christian’s life, it is important to keep in mind that it is His power. We are only able to experience it when we use it as He wishes. A good guess is that this has a lot more to do with the witness’ confidence and courage than spiritual butt-kicking ability.

“Take Nothing”

This is something a lot of missionary types need to evaluate again today. Jesus sent His disciples out with one thing: a message. Their success and or failure depended simply on people responding to that message. Things are not all that different today—or they shouldn’t be. Instead we do not approach people and cultures with the Gospel alone. We try to buy the right to be heard through our cultural superiority in the form of technological or medical advances, or simply through our winning friendliness. Somewhere along the way the most important story in the history of the world wasn’t good enough anymore. Purpose in life must be proceeded with solving people’s problems—usually with dollar signs attached to our solutions. Are we bringing the Gospel of the Kingdom of God, or the Gospel of the Dollar Bill?

“Stay there”

Finally, Jesus had them do mission strategically. This was not a random effort to evangelize the countryside by sharing a two minute Gospel presentation to everyone they met along the way. (In fact, elsewhere Jesus tells them not to talk to people along their route.) The Gospel message is to make its way into culture through natural, familial networks. The key is not adding to the Kingom one random stranger at a time, but rather multiplying the worldview across a culture from house to house. Once a receptive household is found and discipled, the natural course of things is for that discipleship to grow outwards through relationships. When discipleship is done right it reproduces itself.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

In Defence of Advent Rituals and Traditions

There is a lot of pressure during the Advent season. For many it anything but an adventurous time; instead it if full of business, unmet expectations, financial stress, and depression. The reaction many people have to such chaos in the face of what should be a meaningful celebration is to shut down, give up and unfortunately miss out.

As with many of our problems in Western Culture, this check-out-of-advent mentality is born from a perceived need to favorably compare ourselves to others. Especially to our naïve assumptions that the perfection we see in the limited glimpses of others’ celebrations are indeed accurate depictions. Especially in the age of Facebook one-upmanship.

A give up is the wrong response here. Family traditions and even rituals throughout the year are an important tool that can strengthen familial bonds, beliefs and values like nothing else. They key is to establish valid traditions with immediate meaning that are maintained, not out of traditional obligation nor outside pressure to adopt everything being done, but rather to fulfill the functions that the traditions were created to achieve.

In our particular case, we are huge Christmas elves. Our family traditions are vast and plenty and involve nearly two months of ritual, all done with purpose. When we up and moved our family half way around the world, we brought just a few things—all dear friends: old stuffed animals, guitars, all the books that we couldn’t bear to give away… and a couple trunk-loads of Christmas traditions.

We do not nearly do everything that you see people doing this time of year. We skew away from the silly (expensive attempts to please children’s every wish), the wrong (lying to kids about secondary characters of the season), and the evil (elf on a shelf). Christmas does not have to be busy, chaotic, leading to financial ruin, or all-consuming to be special.

The key to good traditions is to establish simple patterns and practices that have meaning and are repeated. Music, symbols, smells, and activities that start small and build throughout the years are all you need. That, and the wisdom to hold things in check and discontinue things that no longer make sense or have gotten out of hand. Tradition should always serve and not be served.

Educate and create memories that your family will cherish, that is what this season should accomplish.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Star Trek Deep Space Nine (Season 6a)

Season 5c  Season 6b

Season Six of Deep Space Nine starts out less of a typical Trek “stand alone episode” format and (counting the season finale from season 5) goes on a seven episode arc. It is more in keeping with the way TV is done now, but it also makes for a difficult time trying to pick lessons and truths from individual episodes.

There are some fun themes running through this portion of the season.

Sisko is given more responsibility and say in the war effort; something that fulfills him to some degree, but he notes the loss of camaraderie he had on the front lines.

Back on the station, we get to see the various political and interpersonal aspects of the resistance.

Of particular interest in this arc is the way Odo is played by the other Founder on the station. The way his loyalties are tested and the draw that his own kind poses is a strange thing to behold. All at once we understand the struggle he is going through, but we also almost hate him for the weakness he exhibits.

This whole portion of the series is some of the highest entertainment Trek has ever offered—certainly this series anyway. At the same time, it also shows how this type of television—the soap opera style—is more of a struggle for writers wanting to offer up analogies and lessons in the classical science fiction vein.

Episode 7 “You Are Cordially Invited…” offers up some mildly interesting cultural clashes and ends up being (surprisingly and refreshingly) a story about marriage being more than simply about a couple in love, but the joining of families and an adoption of each other’s values.

Episode 8 “Resurrection” is another episode involving the parallel universe (annoying) but is one of the more directly religious episodes. It is an interesting look at faith and mystical experience affecting a person deeply. As a stand-alone, however, it does not do much to explore this issue very deeply. In the end, we need the parallel universe characters gone by the end of the episode, so things end rather abruptly.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Complete Implications of Optical Illusions





There is a site out there that has become a bit of a meme. It is simply an age old optical illusion, albeit done in a way that really dazzles more than earlier versions have. (In fact, there are a couple more on the site that are very good: a video of the same shades of grey effect and one that has you convinced that one shade of color is both blue and green. See here.)


The creator of the site likes to use this effect as an illustration of the untrustworthiness of our perspective (a very postmodern approach to reality) but also to argue in favor of a purely scientific approach to seeing the world. (That is a modern stance.)

“They show us in no uncertain terms that what we see is not what we get. It’s extremely easy to fool our eyes and brain, and we should never simply trust that what we see, what we think is going on, is a fair and accurate representation of reality. This is why we have science. Richard Feynman called it (with characteristic simplistic brilliance) ‘a way of not fooling ourselves’.”

He has a point. He has a good point. Faith, as truly Biblical Christians understand it, is never about pure mysticism, nor does it argue for adopting the views of a select, religious, leadership. In fact the Bible argues against both extremes.

Monday, December 9, 2013

"The Secret World of Arrietty" (2010)

Studio Ghibli achieves, in the opinion of this writer (as well as most aesthetically sensible people, wink, wink), some of the most beautiful, astonishing animation ever put to film. If I were tasked with introducing someone to animation who was completely ignorant with the art-form, it is highly likely I would turn to Ghibli. Disney in its heyday, and certainly Pixar until recently, have better examples of story-telling, but no one tops the sheer visual artistry of Miyazaki and company. Where I run into problems—be it due to cultural distance or the fault of the filmmakers I leave for others to decide—is in the stories themselves.

However, with 2010s “Arrietty” there is no such problem. Some may find it boring or disappointing that there are no flourishes of the fantastic or strange twists and turns to this story. Instead, it is in the simple, straightforward adaptation of the classic children’s book that we are permitted to be astounded with the visuals. And as often as this story has been put on screen using special effects and camera trickery, it is only in the medium of animation that the premise of “The Borrowers” can truly come to life. Even better, the way Hiromasa Yonebayashi employs the photorealistic style makes the story at once beautiful and believable.

And that is where the true heart of this story lies. Never mind that half the characters are mere inches tall and live a fantastic existence of another perspective that every child at some point tries to imagine. This is a story of real emotion and connection with which everyone can identify.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Who is this Man? (Mark 6:1-6)

We read here that Jesus’ home town did not believe in Him. But this is not quite as simple a statement as you might think. The people in Jesus’ region WERE astonished with Jesus. They saw great wisdom in His teaching. They witnesses miracles performed by Him. The big hang-up they could not overcome was that they knew Him as a person that they had seen growing up and doing “normal” things like go to school and work. They saw Him as a great teacher and miracle worker; they just couldn’t accept Him as Messiah or Lord. He was not Savior or God in their eyes.

Truth be told, even amongst “Christians” today, we have the same sort of problem. A plurality of people who go by His name see Jesus as anything but who He is. Some see a prophet, a role-model, an example to follow. Others see a baby in an inspiring story or a martyr who changed western culture for the better. Some see a good luck charm, or a god to whom they go for assistance in their own plans and desires; a magic man.

If we do not want to be like the people of Nazareth, we need to see Jesus for who He really is. He is Messiah, Savior, Lord and King. He is the person we surrender to, follow and obey. He is God. If He is anything less in your life, you may have a problem.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Medical Musings

Recently, I have lived through two completely unnecessary medical dramas. A coworker, and then a family member—in the span of a month—both got the word from their doctor that they had to rush to the hospital to be tested for cancer. In both cases they had symptoms that had them thinking they were sick with something non-life-threatening, and in both cases their own suspicions/self-diagnoses were accurate. It was the doctors who were wrong.

Now this is the sort of experience that can have terribly damaging repercussions. It is what leads people to investigate their symptoms online and hazard a guess instead of trusting the experts, but it is the experts that are causing the problem by (a) not doing a good job reading the problem and (b) causing a panic by using the “C” word before they have a good reason to do so.

And really, it is high time we adjusted our expectations and approaches to health issues in the information age we live in. If someone has a modicum of education and reputable places to go for information online, we should add our own judgment into our medical evaluation. I cannot count the amount of times when I have had to make a choice whether to take a kid to a doctor or wait out what appeared to be an untreatable sickness that simply had to run its course. In most cases I waited and was right; in others things seemed so bad I erred on the side of caution and merely got a confirmation of what I already knew in my gut.

Or, maybe I have simply been blessed with healthy kids.

But I have had more than one doctor complain to me in confidence that many parents are too quick to rush to the professional. Some simply because their kid won’t stop crying.

In any case, things are not helped when we encounter so much incompetence in the profession all around the world. It probably all amounts to a case of false expectations. We don’t see doctors as merely another set of professionals. We think of them as infallible sources of magical knowledge.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Two More Healings: Authority over death (Mark 5:21-43)

We come to the second (of seven) “sandwiched” stories in Mark. Mark likes to tell two stories where the action of one is framed around that of another—usually to highlight or comment on something in the inner story with what the framing story conveys. Here that doesn’t really seem to be the case. While both stories convey the same message (and share a lot of commonalities) this feels more like a case of the events simply occurring this way.

Jesus is approached by an important man with a hopelessly sick 12-year-old daughter. He believes that Jesus can save her if He simply will lay His hands on her. Along the way a woman with a 12-year-old helpless sickness touches Jesus, believing His touch will heal her. It does and Jesus notices the power of the healing and draws attention to her action. Jesus doesn’t just send her on her way healed of her illness. He tells her that her faith has “saved” her; she is to go in peace and be healed from her suffering. There is a larger picture here of healing from the suffering of being in rebellion against God. We see here in Mark again the message of faith leading to the Kingdom of God.

At this point, the servants of the important man, Jairus, arrive to tell him it is too late. His daughter has died. But Jesus tells him to keep on believing. When they arrive at the house full of mourners, Jesus sends them away and takes a small, private group into the child. There he simply takes her hand and tells her to arise. She was dead, but is now alive again.

The central point of these stories (similar to the friends in 2:1-12 and later to Bartimaeus in 10:46-52) is that faith is key to restored relationship with God. It is not as though faith is a key element in a magical process of miracle-working; nor is it important that people believed Jesus could perform miracles. (More on this in the very next story.) Trust in Jesus—that God is working through Him in our lives—is what is needed to be saved. The point here is not, “if you just believe ENOUGH or in the RIGHT way, you will not be sick.” It is if you trust God with your life—through all the circumstances and hardships—and you repent of your own attempts at running things and yield to Him and His plans, you can live life as He intends in His kingdom. You can “go in peace and be healed of your sufferings.”

Saturday, November 30, 2013

The 2000s in Film (The Whole Decade)

Any “best of” list on this blog is subjective, of course, but I have gone out of my way to make this one so. Here are my top 50 films of the 00s, but where more than one film could go together I list them so, with an estimation of where they would fall on a true top 50 in parenthesis:

1. “Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” (2001) Jackson
  (2) The Return of the King (2003) Jackson
  (4) The Two Towers (2002) Jackson
2. The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe (2005) Adamson
  (10) Prince Caspian (2008) Adamson
3. Minority Report (2002) Spielberg
4. Signs (2002) Shyamalon
  (17) The Village (2004) Shyamalon
5. Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince (2009) Yates
  (8) The Order of the Phoenix (2007) Yates
  (9) The Prisoner of Azkaban (2004) Cuaron
  (11) The Sorcerer’s Stone (2001) Columbus
  (12) The Chamber of Secrets (2002) Columbus
6. The Incredibles (2004) Bird
  (14) Ratatouille (2007) Bird
  (15) Up (2009) Doctor
  (16) Finding Nemo (2003) Stanton
  (22) Monsters Inc. (2001) Doctor
  (26) Wall-E (2008) Stanton
7. El Laberinto del Fauno (2006) Del Torro
8. Batman Begins (2005) Nolan
  (19) The Dark Knight (2008) Nolan
9. Brick (2005) Johnson
10. Big Fish (2003) Burton
11. Coraline (2009) Selick
12. Wallace and Gromit: The Curse of the Wererabbit (2005) Park
13. Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003) Verbinski
14. Sherlock Holmes (2009) Richie
15. No Country for Old Men (2007) Coens
16. Gladiator (2000) Scott
17.Moulin Rouge! (2001) Luhrman
18. Munich (2005) Spielberg
19. The Pianist (2002) Polanski
20. Inglorious Basterds (2009) Tarantino
21. O Brother Where Art Thou? (2000) Coens
22. A Beautiful Mind (2001) Howard
23. Chicken Run (2000) Park
24. The End of the Spear (2006) Hanon
25. Casino Royale (2006) Campbell
26. Star Trek (2009) Abrams
27. Wo Hu Cang Long (2000) Lee
28. The Ninth Gate (2000) Polanski
29. Shaun of the Dead (2004) Wright
30. Chocolat (2000) Halström
31. Nanny McFee (2005) Jones
32. Children of Men (2006) Cuaron
33. The Bourne Identity (2002) Liman
34. Ocean’s Eleven (2001) Soderberg
35. Shadow of the Vampire (2000) Merhige
36. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (2005) Jennings

Directors with Multiple Films: Peter Jackson (3); Alfonso Cuaron (2); Andrew Adamson (2); Andrew Stanton (2); Brad Bird (2); Chris Columbus (2); Christopher Nolan (2); The Coen Brothers (2); David Yates (2); M. Night Shyamalon (2); Nick Park (2); Pete Doctor (2); Roman Polanski (2); Steven Spielberg (2)

Number of films per year: 2000 (7); 2001 (6); 2002 (6); 2003 (4); 2004 (4); 2005 (7); 2006 (4); 2007 (3); 2008 (3); 2009 (6)

Friday, November 29, 2013

"The Worlds End" (2013)

The third of the “Cornetto Trilogy” is, like many third instalments in a series (even though this isn’t really that kind of trilogy), the least fulfilling of the bunch. Sure, it has the same look, style, sense of fun, and other commonalities. (It shares the same levels of harsh language and violence that prohibits its recommendation to the more “discerning” viewers I know. Although: the violence is less offensive since the blood is all blue and not really blood, and the language is, well… worse.)

However, the main reason “The Worlds End” is a letdown is the message. Each of these films has one. Either a call to live life more intentionally, or to balance society’s need for structure with the innate need for individuals to have freedom. Here the point seems to be a claim that humanity’s best value is their dogged self-determinism. Even when that means we are destined to be eternal screw-ups. At one point things look they are all merely going for irony, when the humans reject the “robot overlords” and the whole world falls into the Dark Ages, but not so much.

Perhaps one could even put a positive spin on things—there is still a stylish sense of fun to be had—but Simon Pegg’s character this time around is simply unlikable. And it’s not so that he can grow as a character in the course of the plot. He starts out and ends up as a self-absorbed jerk. Exactly the sort of self-absorbed, screw everything up, destroy every relationship he ever had kind of jerk that this films ends up glorifying and championing.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

"Hot Fuzz" (2007)

Looking ahead to the third in the Cornetto Trilogy, revisited the second instalment “Hot Fuzz.” (“Shaun of the Dead” is a film I have re-watched a lot more frequently, as well as reviewed.)

One of the appeals of these films, beyond the well written comedy and great comedic timing of the ensembles, is the way they also endeavor to comment on some aspect of society. If “Shawn” reflected on the meaningless routine of modern existence, “Hot Fuzz” explores the tension between the order established in society through laws and the ways they are enforced, and the limitations that should be maintained against governments having too much control.

Nicholas Angel is the perfect example of a police officer. He is so good, in fact, that he is sent away from London to a small village because he is making everyone else look so bad. His new assignment in the small village is the very definition of boredom because it is so idyllic and perfect. In fact, it is considered the safest village in all of England.

Of course, anyone who knows human nature knows that something must be up. And it does turn out that Nicholas stumbles upon a series of grisly murders that appear to be tied into a conspiracy to profit from a new highway scheduled to be built through the area.

As it turns out, the murders are motivated by a sentiment much closer to Nicholas’ own heart—order and standards in the village. By the climax the film has become a full-on parody of the high octane action flicks it is satirizing, but observant viewers are left with a pretty clever reminder that too much law and order is just as bad as none at all. The government, and a codified law, are merely societal controls and protections—not the means to change hearts and make the world a better place.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

"The Day of the Doctor"

Spoilers ahead:

The 50th Anniversary special episode was, of course, excellent. It was well written, well-acted, and had a wonderful series of references to past material that made fans laugh and cheer. (Some of the humor was of that special variety that was truly funny, but that required a knowledge of the history of the show that simultaneously entertained and gave on a sense of belonging.) All of that said, it also offered a couple of special—if paradoxical—lessons.

The historical context needed to understand the overarching plot of the show concerns something known as the Time War. Ever since the series returned from its long hiatus in 2005, we have known that there was a war between the Doctor’s people and their archenemies known as the Daleks. We also know that the Doctor did something to end that war that completely destroyed both his and the Daleks’ world with both civilizations. Two simultaneous cases of genocide, if you will. However, the Doctor has been pretty tight-lipped as to details of that action.

In this special, we get to see the Doctor as he is preparing to end the war. To do so, he has stolen the Time Lords’ most advanced and devastating weapon ever conceived; a weapon so advanced it developed a conscience and was never used. As the show explains, “How do you use a weapon of ultimate mass destruction when it can stand in judgment of you?” Well, before the Doctor can use it, it sends him to his own future to see the men that he will become.

What he sees is the first lesson. That act of genocide, though necessary in order to save the universe from the evil of the war, is something that the Doctor has regretted ever since. In fact—even though he was a good man beforehand who always helped people and fought evil—he has become an even more tireless force for good, righting wrongs and saving lives. His past mistakes and regrets have helped make the Doctor who he is.

However, as the War Doctor returns to his own time determined to repeat his wrong (confident that it is his only option, and that it will make him a better person) he is joined by his future selves. Though they come to help him the oldest version of the Doctor (who has had the longest time to consider his actions) changes his own history. He sets in motion a plan that will save the universe, end the war, and not kill his people. (The Daleks will all still die, but at their own hands… er, plungers?)

That is the second lesson. Even when it seems like there is no choice but evil, the “necessary evil,” that is a lie. One can always do the right thing. It may not be easy, and it may cost a tremendous price, it is always the preferable choice. We are not time travelers standing in eternity, able to calculate all the outcomes. We may not have the power to change our history, but we can know someone who does see the bigger picture.

So, do good always and trust the outcome to Him.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Saved from a Living Death: To Serve (Mark 5:1-20)

Our Terrible Story of Death: Humanity apart from God is spiritually dead.

The man Jesus encounters is tormented spiritually. He is forced to live amongst the graves. He runs around like an animal, screaming and hurting himself. It is an extreme image, but by degrees, all of humanity struggles with this living death. We are not the way we were meant to be. We muddle about aimlessly chasing our own half thought out plans; slaves to our impulses, making mistake after mistake.

We all, from the time we are children, are building our own little Kingdoms. We know what we want to be. We know what we want to do. The problem is that we find ways to destroy everything: our dreams, those around us, and our lives. Jesus came declaring the Kingdom of God and inviting us to find our place in it. The role we were created to play. A big problem, even for religious people who are prepared to believe in Christ, is we often still miss the point. We invite Jesus into OUR Kingdom. We ask Him to make OUR plans reality. The problem is, we are and have never been in control of our kingdoms. We are slaves to sin.

We need to examine our own lives and determine who is in charge. Is it Jesus, or do we still hold to the illusion that we are in control and He is merely a guest in our lives? In any event, we need to understand that the vast majority of the people in our lives are much like this man in the cemetery; slaves under the control of sin.

What is the solution to our problem?

His Wonderful Story of Life: Jesus, the Son of God, has all authority over the spiritual realm.

The demons here recognize Jesus, who He is and the power that He has. The fascinating thing here is the way this power operates. He does not force them out in a physical or mechanical way. Their will is forced. They resist, but know that in the end they must yield to His authority.

Of course the real power Jesus brought with His incarnation is forgiveness. While we were busy rebelling, building our own pathetic kingdoms, and generally screwing the world up, God had a plan. Jesus became like us, human, and lived life as God intended. God’s Kingdom came manifest in the life of Christ. Then He took the sins of the whole world—our rebellion, our mistakes, our designs and our evils—and He paid the price for it all in His death. Then He rose victorious over sin and death. We can remember the dead in Christ with hope today because of the death of Jesus in our place, in theirs.

Christ has that power over everything. He can and has made things right in creation, but people still have a choice. They can trust God and experience life fully in His kingdom, or they can continue to do things their way and carry on in kingdoms of frustration, error, and death.

So why don’t more people see their own hopelessness and accept the wonderful gift of life in the Kingdom of God?

The Frightening Aspect of the Kingdom Story: The Kingdom of God is scary to the world that is perishing.

Here we come to the part of the story where the pigs are possessed and killed. Why does Mark include this bit? Why did Jesus allow it to happen? Many commentators try to reveal the symbolic meaning in this aspect of the story. They claim Mark includes it as a veiled commentary on Rome, or that it is a political aspect of the messianic mission. I believe Mark (as well as Matthew and Luke) included this because it happened. As to the why, I believe Jesus was making an impact. We never see Jesus doing miraculous things out of any other motivation than to bring glory to God and to highlight the message of the Kingdom of God. Here, the killing of the pigs makes the event of the exorcism undeniable. It could still be explained away perhaps by people not wanting to acknowledge God, but something happened! The problem is that such a manifestation of power, while a great basis for a story that will impact a whole region, is also something that really freaks people out. Jesus is asked to leave forthwith. People see their own efforts—their kingdoms—threatened and move to shield themselves and their world from such power.

Many people today think that the key to reaching people with the Gospel lies in miraculous manifestations. What we see in Scripture would suggest this is not the case. For moments when the Gospel first enters a culture, powerful manifestations are seen, but even here we see the manifestation itself does not convince people. Jesus’ miracles tended to draw crowds for all the wrong reasons, or else scare people away. Here a whole region is impacted, but the only person convinced appears to be one of the two possessed men. Everyone else begs Jesus to leave.

So how will people hear about God’s plan in such a way that they can understand it and respond?

Our Story and His Story: When Jesus rescues us from death; His desire is that we share our story with others, beginning with our Oikos.

The whole purpose Jesus sailed to the other side of the sea and braved the storm to get there, seems to be to have reached this one man. When the man begs to be allowed to go with Jesus—to de His disciple—Jesus doesn’t allow it. Why? Because this man’s role as a disciple was not to sit at Jesus’ feet and learn more. He was to go to his home, to his family and friends, and tell his story. He was supposed to change the region by bringing tidings of the Kingdom of God. And we will see later in chapters 7 and 8, he does just that. When Jesus returns to the area later thousands of people swarm to meet Him and to hear from him. This is how the Kingdom of God spreads, as we tell our stories to our family, friends, and everyone we meet.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

"Pacific Rim" (2013)

“Pacific Rim” really was one of the most entertaining, fun films of the year. Sure, it was silly, Saturday matinee fare, but that is the target at which it was aiming. It took the ideas from those old 50s monster movies, particularly the likes of Godzilla; added in a good mix of those 1980s cartoons like “Battle of the Planets” or “G.I. Joe” and made something that was far better than any of its inspirations.

Now, it did not improve the source material to the level that “Star Wars” improved on space opera, or “Raiders of the Lost Ark” the classic adventure story. This is not an instant classic. Not even a slow boiler. However, with all of its cheesy dialogue and situations, it did something that just about any straight-up action film for the past ten years has failed to do.

It managed to put exciting, awe inspiring, visual action on film in such a way that audiences could understand what was going on and still be amazed. The sloppy practice in action films since at least the release of “The Bourne Supremacy” have utilized has been to confuse audiences. Just show a jumbled mess of movement and close up shots that no one can identify and then tell them they just saw high impact action as it is really experienced.

The worst offender in this technique has surely been Michael Bay with his Transformers franchise. “Pacific Rim” does giant robots the way they should be done, and then it adds in giant, reptilian monsters to boot.

It is THE action blockbuster of the summer of 2013.

Friday, November 22, 2013

"The Adjustment Bureau" (2011)

If you are one of those people who enjoy contemplating the implications of the many Biblical paradoxes, or if you are someone who tries to simplify the Biblical message to weed them all out, then “The Adjustment Bureau” is just the sort of thought provoking entertainment for you.

Based loosely on a Philip K. Dick story, the film deals with a man trying to connect with the love of his life, whilst all the powers of heaven try to keep them apart. It appears as though at one point in “the grand scheme of things” they were fated to end up together, but decisions and circumstances have changed the plan. The whole story explores philosophical questions and concepts like fate and free will. Actually, it is more theology than philosophy. It does come across like the story in Genesis 18, where Abraham tries to influence God’s plans for Sodom and Gomorrah.

The reality of such issues is too grand and complex to be dealt with in one simple story, but the thought provoking way this story handles them is commendable. Even more than that, the art direction and concepts this film developed to present their ideas are some of the best seen in a long time. This movie finds its place alongside some other very well made, thought provoking movies from 2011 like “The Tree of Life,” “Jane Eyre,” “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy,” and “Midnight in Paris.”


Thursday, November 21, 2013

A Brief Look at "My Neighbor Totoro"

Another example of beautiful animation, one can see why this film has produced one of the most well-loved creatures in animation. It also, however, highlights why Miyazaki is known as one of the best animators ever, not one of the best story-tellers.

“My Neighbor Totoro” is fairly anemic on story. A couple girls move into a country house with their father, and discover the local animistic deities that live there. Their mother is in a hospital not too far away, and when the younger sister tries to go see her mom and gets lost, it is prayers to the local gods that are answered and bring the girl back to safety. The real charm here is in the drawings, the animation, and the general artistic direction.

If one discounts the “cat bus” creature, the spirits and beings in this film are fascinating and cute. But the magic realism of this story doesn’t feel like a literary invention but rather a cultural reality for many in the world. Because even Theists (like Christians) who are in no way traditional animists, still often fall into a world view that is animistic. But there is a fundamental difference between believing in a spiritual dimension to reality and believing in local deities or powers.

But none of that really has anything to do with this film. It is really more of a pretty exploration into the world of a couple of girls who experience something amazing. Just not as amazing as one might find in other stories of this ilk.


Monday, November 18, 2013

Jesus Stills the Storm (Mark 4:35-41)

There are three interesting things that standout in this fascinating but otherwise straightforward account of Jesus exhibiting power over the natural realm—the kind of power that only God has ever had in the Bible thus far.

First, that Jesus has a plan that requires Him to travel to the other side of the sea (and don’t think for a minute that He is simply being spontaneous) and that there may be forces that don’t want Him going there. That assumption makes this more than a tory about Jesus having power over nature, but that is better left for the next story when Jesus arrives at the other side. For now it is merely interesting to see Jesus use a similar approach to the weather that He employed against demons in chapter one.

Second, the contrast here with the story of Jonah seems deliberate. While their motivations and reactions are wholly different, Jesus and Jonah are both awakened on a ship in danger of going under by people accusing them of not doing what they should. Whereas Jonah was running from God’s plan and quite content to die however, Jesus is on God’s mission and comfortable in the assurance that nothing can work against God’s intentions.

Third, and likely the main point of the story the way that Mark tells it, is the fact that the disciples are still so ignorant and—even more importantly—so untrusting. Jesus had been teaching these guys the extra insights for some time now, and they were living with and learning from Him constantly. However, if there ever was a story that illustrated the vast chasm between knowledge and faith this is it. It does not matter how much one understands about the Kingdom of God or the teachings of the Bible; faith is a matter of trust and surrender. What God desires is faith. Faith seeking understanding is not a bad thing at all, but one should never assume that increased knowledge will help faith. Faith, not information, is the goal.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

"Man of Steel" (2013)





I hereby add myself to the list of detractors. “Man of Steel” is a failure on so many levels.


First, there is the failure as an action film. The build-up, back-story portion of the film works pretty well, but it is as if the film gets two thirds of the way in and remembers it is a super hero film and that it must have a lot of action and violence. At that point it ceases to reflect on any interesting ideas and goes completely overboard on mind-numbing, forget-trying-to-follow-what-is-happening, obliterate-a-metropolis, action. In an amazing contradiction, the film becomes boring when it should be climaxing.

Secondly, there is the failure as an adaptation. Adaptations are not bad by their very nature, but this film fails to adapt the Superman mythos in any way that provides new perspective while remaining true to the core of the story. Some would argue that it does do exactly that, but the changes here either fall into the category of mere window dressing, or outright betrayal. It is as though one had made Sherlock Holmes a dunce, or Tarzan a sophisticate. That would be fine if this were a satirical work. Instead Snyder and co. have earnestly made Superman a killer.

Therein lies the ultimate failure of this film. People try to argue that this film had to do what it did because the story demanded it. They placed Superman in a situation where there was no other out. All that really says is either (a) the writers were not skilled enough to solve their set-up whilst guarding the true nature of the character, or (b) they were never really writing a Superman story.

Some will say that this criticism is a case of false expectations. That one should not demand a film meet some preconceived wish of the audience. To that I have two responses. If you tell a story about a beloved, or at least well-known character, you have to contend with such expectations. And, even if you remove the Superman baggage and have this film be merely a highly derivative action piece, you still have to deal with the first problem already stated above; this film is boring.

In the end, that tends to be a common problem with Superman stories. Maybe this film is true to its roots after all.

(Here is the best version of "Man of Steel," the trailer is amazing.)

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

"Ponyo" (2008)

My first exposure to Miyazaki was “Princess Mononoke” back in 1997. It was probably an unfortunate first impression. I had heard how this man was supposed to be the greatest animator ever, but it simply felt as though he was making some propaganda—albeit delightfully bizarre and beautiful. I need to revisit that film, but it felt at the time like it was a little too on the nose. Preachy.

I skipped “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle” but kept hearing how wonderful things were and wondered if I should give him another chance when I saw the trailer to “Ponyo.” It didn’t help dissuade my impression of him as an artist more in the vein of propagandist. I let a few more years go by.

Now I have taken the plunge and watched a few Miyazaki films, starting with “Ponyo.”

First off, one has to admit the guy knows his art. Visually this is some of the most beautiful and stunning animation I have seen. I also am a sucker for the magic realism genre, so any film where bizarre things happen in the normal world and characters don’t react surprised is a good thing.

That being said, having thought about the “message” of the story for a couple weeks now, I have to call foul. It is not completely the filmmakers’ fault. Even though they have chosen the source material and “The Little Mermaid” is one of the most amazingly terrible fairy-tales ever. Yet the changes made to the tale do nothing to help things. In fact, it makes an even bigger mess.

Any story where a character makes bad choices that not only threaten terrible consequences for the protagonist but also to those they love—even the entire world—and those consequences are easily swept away simply by another’s love…

Oh wait. Maybe there is a truth behind the silliness here.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

The Kernel (Mark 4:30-34)

The last of the Kingdom parables in this section is relatively simple and clear. The Kingdom of God starts small and unseen, yet it will eventually grow to be a home and a shelter to all. What begins with a simple, wonderful story will change the world. But Jesus doesn’t teach this principle directly. He tells His stories:

“With many such parables he spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it. He did not speak to them without a parable, but privately to his own disciples he explained everything.”

It seems Jesus did all His public proclamation of the Kingdom this way. He was cryptic. He tossed out crumbs that could lead people to the truth. He only clarified and expounded His message for those who followed. Those who believed.

The Biblical message is about faith, not understanding. It is about trust, not knowledge. Over and over again in Mark we see a process where Jesus finds His people, those looking for the truth. Once we belong to God’s kingdom we begin our journey of understanding, but that trip starts—and really is all about—belief. Jesus did not present a logical case for His Kingdom that would convince people on the evidence. He shared an understanding of the world that would resonate with those who were inclined to hear.

Today we do things very differently. We try to convince people of a truth that cannot be seen. We try to make the Gospel a reasonable and logical alternative to all the other ideologies men have cooked up. Instead of appealing to reason, we need to awaken faith. We are not here to debate, we have been sent to tell a story.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

A Voyeuristic Killer

I watched with fascination
as she did a thorough toilet
front legs, middle, then back
wings and body; wash, rinse, repeat
working mandibles and pulvilli
like a miniscule, fuzzy cat.

As fun as it was to be
a voyeur to this private
quiet, countertop bath,
I decided to skew germs
in favor of visceral jelly
and ended her wash with a splat!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

"The Fall" (2013)

Postmodern intellectualism has a real problem when it comes to art. It is always in danger of being taken in like the emperor shopping for a new outfit.

The key to success in these times is to be obtuse. Don’t ever have a message; don’t use your art to communicate an idea. Make your work so broad that the audience can make it say whatever they want to hear. If you do have a point, hide it as well as you can and never speak of it.

That is not to say postmodern artists never have anything good or true to offer, and I really like quite a few of them a lot. Artists like Eliot, Kubrick, and Bono spring readily to mind. All great skilled and talented men on their own; they are elevated by the audiences’ fear of being perceived as stupid. The thing that most elevates “2001: A Space Odyssey” to greatness is people are too scared to point out that it is basically naked. It may be beautiful to look at, but it has no idea what it wants to say.

Eliot was probably the forerunner of this postmodernity in art. He tossed a collage of ideas and quotes on a page and people were blown away. No matter what he intended to say with “The Hollow Men,” for example, everyone just takes it to mean whatever they want.

All of that brings me to “The Fall.” A police procedural in the serial killer subgenre, “The Fall” rises above its contemporaries on its obtuseness posing as brilliance. Is it about the fallen condition of humanity? Certainly. All crime shows are about the sinful tendencies of mankind; this one wallows in it. Is it based on Eliot’s poem? The killer quotes it, so it must be.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of “The Fall” is that it was made and succeeded. Our culture is in a place right now where we want stories about villains. We root for bad characters and we want good ones barely identifiable for all their brokenness. This show certainly fits the bill. The serial killer is a monster hiding in the form of a normal husband, father, and professional counselor. The detective is just as asocial and disconnected from the world around her, only she makes no effort to hide.

The show has been renewed for a second series, which is fortunate from one standpoint. This show is not a whodunit, but rather one of those tales where we know right from the start who the killer is and therefore we are merely watching to see how he will be caught. And at least on one point “The Fall” does mirror “The Hollow Men.” It ends, “not with a bang but a whimper.”

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